Who would have guessed it would take dancing dolphins, boogieing blowfish and soft-shoeing seagulls to welcome the biggest holiday hit this side of Hamilton? Chicagoland’s premiere family friendly production, Paramount Theatre’s The Little Mermaid wowed with an opulent retelling of the familiar classic, set a few fathoms below the surface of the ocean. Delivering both high spirited and high flying entertainment, director Amber Mak and company have hit it out of the ballpark with this one. This is just Mak’s second outing as director at the Paramount, yet she and her creative team have painted a seascape with the most spectacular, highly stylized, remarkable colors and sophisticated pallet, full of vitality and vigor, that is current playing in the Windy City theatrical landscape. Both jolly and inventive, Paramount’s The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story “The Mermaid.” The Disney-fied protagonist, a plucky red-head with a heart of gold and a voice to match, is played by the impressive Kari Yancy, making Ariel all her own. She may long for life out of the sea, up where the people are, but all Chicagoland residents should be clamoring for tickets to see this impressive hit. All the familiar, entertaining, and award-winning music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater were there, along with a half dozen new songs added for the stage show. The updated book by Doug Wright played up the independent spirited nature and moxie of the principal mermaid herself.
Ariel began her tail, err, tale at the ocean’s surface, longing to be part of the wonderful world of the humans. Joined by her best friend Flounder (a role shared by Murphy Byrne and Ricky Falbo) on her adventures, Ariel is soon love-struck by the handsome Prince Eric (Devin DeSantis) out to sea on an adventure with his crew, trusted Man Servant, Grimsby (George Keating) by his side. After a storm sinks the ship, Eric is rescued and taken to shore by Ariel, much to the consternation of her father, the imperious King Triton (a glorious Evan Tyrone Martin) distrustful of anyone with two legs. Forbidden by her father to ever return to the surface world, our crimson topped heroine crooned about her impending independence. “Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand.” Overhearing her unhappiness, “Auntie” Ursula (the always winning Christina Hall) and her devilish duo electric eel pets, Flotsam (Adam Fane) and Jetsam (John Adam Keating) set out to trick Ariel with a plot to steal her soul by commandeering her voice. Sent to the surface world on two wobbly legs with friends Sebastian (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis ) and Scuttle (Michael Ehlers) in tow, Ariel has just three days in which to make the handsome prince “Kiss The Girl.” Does she succeed? This is a Disney production, so you can easily guess.
With numerous under water puns including “she is head over tails in love” giggled by Flounder, “water all around you child, and you still have to chase fire” gibed Sebastian, and “we are both fish out of water” from a clearly smitten Prince Eric, the witty new dialog is enough to put a smile on even the most cynical of audience member’s faces. Kari Yancy made for an enchanting Ariel, with a voice as smooth as silk. Ehlers’ Scuttle got a chance to shine during a delightful soft shoe tap dance, and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis’ Sebastian is a Caribbean cutie carrying the two most famous songs from the show, the Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea” and romantically reproduced “Kiss the Girl” on his tiny crimson shoulders. While “the seaweed is always greener, in somebody’s else’s lake” Mak’s lively choreography charmed with eye-popping, bungee jumping panache with Vegas Showgirl style under sea crustacean kick lines, cartwheeling starfish, box-stepping blackfish, samba dancing stingrays, smelts and sprats, and oh how that blowfish blows. Even the Jellyfish are jamming through her ingenious staging, floating through the air almost three stories above the stage. Clearly gravity played no part in the remarkably crafty scenic designs from Jeffrey D. Kmiec and costume designs of Theresa Ham. Each deserve an honorable mention award for their copious additions to the overall aesthetic and alluring appeal of this production. Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s puppet design brought loveable Sebastian and flighty Flounder to life in a proportion reticent of the creatures they were playing as apposed to the actors portraying them. The finest example of this is the act two scene when French Chef Louis (George Keating) is chasing tiny Sebastian around the kitchen, wanting to add him to the lunch menu.
Then there is Ursula. The wickedly delightful aunt, scene-stealing and scenery chomping every second she appeared on stage. Christina Hall, so magnificent here, has earned her place in the spotlight after playing supporting roles at the Goodman and Mercury Theater’s for years. Last seen as one of the Witches in the hit cabaret No One Here But Us Witches her Ursula proved naughty girls really do need love too. This character actress’s deliciously decadent take on “Poor Unfortunate Souls” was a show stopping highlight. Her powerhouse performance left the audience (and this critic) firmly craving more. With eight octopus tentacles accentuating her floor length gown and a gravity defying wig crafted by designer Katie Cordts, all eyes were firmly on this wondrous warbler and buxom baddie every time she slithered seductively on stage. “The Boss Is On a Roll” indeed, boys. I would gladly sign the scroll to listen to Hall continue to sing. Sadly though, the title here proved this show is not all about Ursula, so the only real triumphant adulation this character received was the idolization from the audience during the curtain call.
Highly gratifying, Amber Mak and Paramount Theatre’s The Little Mermaid is a must see for Chicagoland holiday time fun! Gloriously produced, impressively staged, remarkably reimagined and perfectly executed, cast your line out to Auburn and see this show while you still can. Demand for tickets has been so great, an additional week of performances were added before the show even opened. Go see The Little Mermaid before she has to swim away.
Paramount Theatre’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid is now playing through January 15, 2017